.Come to the Table: strangers meet to dine with open minds

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The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once said, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”

That’s exactly the purpose of Come to the Table, a monthly free event where an unlikely group of guests eat dinner and spend time getting to know one another. Each event hosts 50 people for dinner, with half hailing from Marin City and the rest from other parts of the county. Still, the affair is intimate, with up to six dining at each table.

The second part of the evening consists of a spirited community forum for more than a hundred people, featuring Marin City leaders in conversation with experts from across the county and beyond. Topics have included work and housing issues, telling stories through art and culture, the history of Marin City and health care disparities. Speakers have ranged from Black and white physicians to a queer Mexican-American theater director to women business owners.

Come to the Table is the brainchild of Rev. Floyd Thompkins, who leads St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. For years, Thompkins knew many residents of the predominantly wealthy and white Marin County were either unfamiliar with or disinterested in the issues facing their neighbors in Marin City, a diverse, low-income community in the southern portion of the county.

In November, Thompkins hosted a one-day “sit down” with religious leaders from across the county and leaders of Marin City organizations to try to uncover the causes of the divide and develop ways to address it. The participants came away with what the pastor calls astonishing realizations.

“There are people who have never been to Marin City—and they live within 10 miles,” Thompkins said. “They go to Sausalito next door, but they never take a right off the freeway and come to Marin City. They’re afraid to come over. So, they haven’t even had the chance to decide whether they want to be a part of the solution or not.”

It all boils down to misconceptions. For example, Marin City, a historically Black community, now has a multicultural population of 3,000. According to the 2020 U.S. Census data for Marin City, 34% of residents are white, 27% Black, 17% Latinx and 14% Asian.

Yet in a multiple-choice survey completed by Come to the Table attendees, almost a third answered that Marin City’s population is 80% Black.

And Marin City is not actually a city, but rather an unincorporated area without the self-governance of an elected mayor or city council. The Marin County Board of Supervisors, none of whom live in Marin City, makes decisions for the residents.

Certainly, Marin City has a unique history and circumstances, but residents across the county share many of the same concerns. The housing crisis, environmental issues and climate change impact everyone.

I attended this month’s Come to the Table. Understanding the genesis of the event, I expected some uncomfortable conversations. Not even close.

From the moment I walked into St. Andrew’s dining room, I could tell that the organizers had set up every aspect of the evening with intention. Right at the check-in, friends and partners were asked to sit at different tables to ensure that they met new people.

The dinner, prepared each month by a different Marin City caterer, is served at the table, allowing people to relax and focus on conversation. Advance fundraising covers the costs, and no one pays to attend the event.

Nonstop dialogue ensued at my table. We didn’t even need the prompts placed on each table, although I found them quite interesting. Most involved the forum topic. However, one set of questions remains the same every month: What is your relationship to money? How has this influenced your choices? How does this affect how you view yourself?

Our discussions delved into issues such as race, inequity and social justice, but we also chatted about the great equalizer—getting stuck on Highway 101 during the afternoon commute.

Tami Bell, raised in Marin City and now living in Richmond, shared that he spent most of his career in education; however, at age 77, he’s preparing to take the bar exam with the hope of practicing educational and social justice law. Bell, also a historian, is an expert on Marin City’s rich past.

Russ Pratt, a Tiburon resident, told stories of his Peace Corps days serving in Botswana. After his family returned from Africa, his children witnessed racism for the first time—in a Marin County school.

Yvonne Harris, a retired law office manager, grew up in Marin City. Her family members worked at Marinship building U.S. warships during World War II. Today, Harris lives in San Rafael. Sandy Smith lives at The Redwoods in Mill Valley, a retirement community, and has volunteered with Bridge the Gap in Marin City, a nonprofit preparing students for college.

We connected on some level, the five of us. While I frequently join events in Marin City, breaking bread with these folks left me with ideas I’d never considered before.

Barbara Bogard, a seasoned organizer and activist, volunteers for Come to the Table’s steering committee. I shared my enlightening dinner experience with her, and she marked it as another success for the event.

“When you sit down with somebody, share a meal with them and have a personal conversation, it really helps dispel myths you might have about Marin City and the people who live there,” Bogard said. “It’s really the most favorite project I’ve ever worked on because we’re not fighting against anybody.”

The after-dinner forum on health care disparities gave me more food for thought. The featured speakers were impressive, informative and accessible.

Dr. Elizabeth Talley, who grew up in Marin City and is a pediatric nephrologist and associate clinical professor at Stanford University, joined Marin County Public Health Director Dr. Matt Willis on the dais. The physicians shared some grim statistics and personal experiences on the inequality of health care for people of color.

The life expectancy for a Marin City resident is 77 years. Just a mile away, in Sausalito, residents can expect to be around for 92 years. Talley and Willis were clear about the drivers for the disparity—failure to screen for, diagnose and manage preventable diseases and chronic conditions. Willis identified these issues as social injustices.

Still, they offered the audience of about 120 people hope that change will come—through better training for health care professionals and recruiting more people of color to work in the industry. In the meantime, Talley and Willis recommend that patients get educated, advocate for themselves, bring someone with them to their health care appointments and look inside the community for support.

At the end of the forum, Thompkins introduced representatives from various Marin City organizations. He reports that true connections are being made—long after the dinner ends—with attendees continuing discussions and volunteering in Marin City.

“Come to the Table is not a destination,” Thompkins said. “When it works, it’s a bridge—a bridge for relationships.” 

Come to the Table, Environmentalism and Resiliency, Saturday, July 13. For more information, visit ctttmarin.org.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

5 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! Nikki, you rock. I hope you’ll tell us more about Come to the Table and the gaps it bridges in understanding and shared concerns.

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  2. Thanks so much for this accurate description of come to the table. The dinner I attended was delightful and the forums present new information. As you mentioned, the health disparities between Marin City and the county are astounding.

    The life stories from Marin City residents have also been shocking as I listened to them describe reeling and job discrimination and how it affected themselves and their parents.

    The website ctttmarin.org has videos and will have more from the forums.

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  3. Thank you Nikki for capturing what is an opportunity for us all to grow, to learn and to participate in shifting our human environment for the greater good of all!

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  4. this sounds great. I want to attend and maybe help on July 13. Where is it? Do I need to register?

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